|258: St Martin, Houston, Texas|
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Mystery Worshipper: Orestes.
The church: St Martin, Houston, Texas.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The building is a bland post-WWII church of the suburban variety. The congregation has long outgrown it and is raising funds to build a larger and, one hopes, more attractive structure.
The neighbourhood: The parish lies in the heart of the affluent inner suburbs of West Houston. Former President George H. Bush and his wife are parishioners and were in attendance at this service.
The cast: Rev. Larry Gipson preached. He was assisted by four members of the clergy, a seminarian and four other lay persons.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist Christmas Eve.
How full was the building?
Filled beyond capacity.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Amidst the crush of families leaving the preceding children's service and those arriving for this service in a driving rain, I felt blessed that the beleaguered usher was able to hand me a service booklet and wish me a harried Merry Christmas.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The slant of the back was pleasing and the seat was padded with an adequate, but by no means luxurious, cushion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Initially, the church was a bedlam of families arriving and trying to reunite those members who had been dropped off due to the rain with those unfortunate enough to have had to park the car. A program of instrumental and choral Christmas music filled the 30 minutes before the service began. The congregation (the church was long full by this time) was quiet during the music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service booklet including prayers and hymns was supplied as one entered.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, drums, flute, harpsichord, harp and chimes.
Did anything distract you?
The arrangement of some of the music was a little startling. I fully expected to see Tinkerbell and the Sugar Plum Fairy begin to flit about the sanctuary during the tintinabulations preceding the carol "Gloria". During another particularly show-biz setting, my nephew leaned toward me and whispered, "Andrew Lloyd Weber, eat your heart out."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I would describe the style of worship as "traditional Christmas festive" joyful and exuberant, without lapsing into histrionics.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Mr Gipson is a fine preacher, and many would no doubt rate his sermon a 10. However, his oratorical style is a bit too florid for my tastes, and his rhetoric tends toward the dramatic anecdote. I prefer less parable and more analysis. However, he is a master of the style he has chosen.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The "Christmas family" was the theme. The covenant of Abraham had made the Jews the "family" of God and the birth of Jesus extended that family to include the world. One point intrigued me. I bristled a bit at his characterization of the Holy Family (let's see, unwed mother, betrothed of the mother not the father of the child, hmmm) as the "nuclear" family, since I felt this pandered a bit to the overwhelmingly conservative social views for which this parish is well known. However, he took a bold step on this turf by including within the term family, "non-traditional" groupings. He made the point emphatically and drove home the universal transcendence of the call to Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The processional, "Adeste fideles," with full accompaniment, good choir and packed house singing mightily was hard to beat. However, despite its cliched sentimentality and for reasons to follow, "Silent Night," sung by the kneeling congregation in the darkened church, was sublime.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sadly, the eucharist. The large church was packed, and the clergy had done a fine job of orchestrating the administration of the eucharist with almost demonic efficiency. Too much of a good thing, I fear. I felt like a computer component on an assembly line as I received the body and blood of Christ not the desired effect. It was this pressured rush, so emblematic of everything that has gone wrong with Christmas, that made the singing of "Silent Night" just before the benediction so moving. It encouraged the entire congregation to take a deep, collective and reflective breath and meditate on the profound significance of the season.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time for such foolishness, thank you. It was Christmas Eve after all, and, like most, I was dashing off to make merry.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None of that foolishness either. The service ended at about seven in the evening, so the coffee was not missed. Most, I think, had stronger stuff in mind.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?